Choosing a medical school

This will be my first post in a series of posts which I have written to help any prospective medical students in the application. Having gone through the application process, I understand how stressful the whole thing can be, and I hope that you will find my posts helpful.

My top tips for choosing a medical school are:

1. Apply smartly

This is probably the most important tip. It is imperative that you apply somewhere which values candidates with your profile, as you are more likely to get an interview or an offer. Even if you really like a particular medical school, there is little point in applying when you clearly don't have a realistic chance. For example, if a medical school requires a very high UKCAT score, it would not be smart to apply with a 630 average.

Examples of smart applying

High UKCAT universities include:
Newcastle and Durham - after the academic screen, the UKCAT score is the only decider of who gets an interview. Applicants are ranked according to their scores, and the top (about 1000) will be invited for interview. According to Durham's website, the cutoff for 2014 was a massive 745 (up from 695 in 2013, and 665 in 2012).
King's College London - for 2013 entry, King's College required at least 685. They also use GCSE grades, and a combination of excellent GCSEs and a good UKCAT will be very helpful in deciding if you get called for interview.

Universities that have high GCSE requirements include Birmingham, Cardiff, Edinburgh, King's College London and Oxford. High GCSE grades will help your application at Imperial College London, University College London (UCL), Leicester and Bristol.

Some universities will want strong AS grades, including Birmingham, Cambridge and UCL. Sheffield want ABBB at AS Level. There may be some other universities that want a strong AS performance. Cambridge will ask you for UMS scores, and these are expected to be at least 90%. UCL also ask many applicants to provide UMS scores as part of their application (but not everybody). Applicants with 90% UMS are advised to apply for Cambridge and UCL.

Note: please check the above information. Admission policies are regularly updated and the information may no longer be accurate.

2. Pick a place which you like 

Ultimately, you will be spending five or six years there. Even if you stand a good chance of getting into a medical school, I would not recommend applying there if you don't really like the location or the university itself. This is why it is important to go on an open day - it will allow you to get a feel for the university, and talking to current students will help you get a flavour of what the university is like.
However, be careful at an open day. The university would have selected their most motivated students who are unlikely to say anything too bad about the course or university. At the end of the day, the open day is designed to make you want to apply. If you can, try exploring the university yourself. Go off the track and see what the university is really like. Perhaps you could go to a common room and talk to current students who are not actively involved in the open day - they may have something different to say.
I really wanted to spend my university life in a large city. Having spent most of my live in a small/mid-sized area, I just wanted to sort of escape and go somewhere where I got that 'buzz' of city life, and so I applied to three London universities. In fact, it was probably the main reason as to why I did not choose to apply for Oxbridge - the thought of living in Oxford or Cambridge was not appealing to me at all!
Now that I am in London, I 100% would not live anywhere else. OK, so I may be paying almost double what other students are paying for a flat that is half the size, but to be honest, it is a sacrifice that I am willing to make. I love the fact that there is always stuff to do and everything is open late. The 24h Tesco is just an absolute Godsend that I now realise that it is something that I could not go through university life without.

3. Think about the course

Another important thing to think about is the course teaching and structure. Consider whether problem-based learning is right for you. How much early clinical experience is there? What nearby hospitals are there? How would you prefer the course to be taught (systems based/subject based)?

A common question is 'Does it matter which medical school you go to?' I read an interesting article in the Student BMJ about this (August 2014), and I also did further reading around the topic both when I applied and during my first year.
I think that in the big picture, it does not matter. All medical schools have to meet a minimum standard set by the GMC, and employers will not be able to see where you graduated from when applying for FY1.
However, some universities seem to prepare students better for a career in medicine. For example, Oxford, Cambridge, UCL and Imperial have a compulsory 6 year course where two degrees are awarded. This gains credit when applying for the foundation programme, and will help in the application for speciality training posts, which are extremely competitive. For example, orthopaedic surgery has 40 applicants per place, and having a degree with Orthopaedic Science (offered at UCL) will certainly provide you with an edge over your competitors. Articles in peer-reviewed journals also gain credit, which many students at these institutions get the opportunity to do so.
Another advantage which I have been discussing about is the opportunity to learn in some of the best hospitals in the country. Clinical facilities in London, Oxford and Cambridge are world-class, and can really enhance your clinical learning. By learning at such institutions, there are greater opportunities to excel in the medical field as these are home to some of the country's most respected doctors, and if you manage to impress them, they will be able to provide many opportunities to enhance your professional development. I cannot say if this is a huge advantage as I have not been through it myself, but this has been mentioned to me by some doctors which I have discussed the matter with.
There is research showing that graduates from some universities perform better at postgraduate examinations (the most famous of which is this article). The Student BMJ article I referred to earlier had some testimonies from current doctors, and they (along with some others I talked to) said that some universities, particularly UCL, prepare you very well for the exams you sit at postgraduate level (MRCP).
However, the study also says that there is a significant correlation between A level grades and performance. I would say that the bottom line is, if you are a highly motivated student, it will not matter much where you study medicine, but it is probably true that more opportunities exist in the more specialist teaching centres.

After considering all of these factors, you will probably find that one or two universities will be absolutely perfect for you. Remember that you do have four choices and that you have to be prepared to go to any one of these as it may be your only offer (in fact this is likely - most people who get offers for medical school get just the one offer).

Looking back on my own application, I would say that I was prepared to go to three out of my four. Although this is not an issue now, if I had only got one offer from the medical school which I didn't particularly like, then I would be disappointed. The reason I applied there is because I thought I would have a good chance of getting in, but it goes to show that although you may have a good chance of getting in somewhere, don't apply there if you wouldn't be prepared to go there. 

Comments

  1. I am struggling with choosing medical schools and your article did help a lot.

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  2. This was very useful, thank you.

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